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The Planning Commission at Work

A Walkabout Approach to Public Meetings

One pleasant sunny day, we decided to walk rather than drive to our favorite local eatery for a bite of lunch. Though we walked the same route that we normally drove, we were both astounded at all the neighborhood details we noticed because we were on foot and not inside the car.

  • Perhaps it is because a walking pace gives you time to actually see and absorb the details of your surroundings.
  • Perhaps it is about being on the sidewalk within arms’ reach of the neighborhood’s textures and colors rather than being insulated from the environment by steel and plastic and glass.
  • Perhaps car travel requires so much of our attention to the road and surrounding traffic that we just don’t have sufficient attention remaining to absorb the rich details of the places we think we know because we drive through them every day.

Perhaps it is all those reasons. But what our walk did was reaffirmed us of the importance of taking a “walkabout approach” to public meetings (and to discovering a new bakery or sandwich shop along the way!).

Participants in Aspinwall, Pennsylvania, walkabout
Participants in the Aspinwall (Pennsylvania) River Town Walkabout pause to imagine Alley A as a pedestrian arcade connecting two commercial nodes in downtown. Photo by Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy.

Gaining New Perspectives

Jim has long been a champion of walkabouts, and has done them in community planning processes from Logansport, Indiana and Blawnox, Pennsylvania, to Napier, New Zealand. Something magical happens when planning commissioners walk their communities with citizens, business owners, and elected officials. Like our recent walk through our neighborhood, the level of community detail people discover on foot is exponentially greater that what they thought they knew about their place.

Sharpsburg residents and council members discover that “The Triangle” can, with some very affordable improvements, become a new gateway to downtown.
Sharpsburg residents and council members discover that “The Triangle” can, with some very affordable improvements, become a new gateway to downtown. Photo by Lisa Hollingworth-Segedy.

Walkabouts also promote a creative view of what those ignored and worn-out spaces that every community has can become. On a recent River Towns Walkabout — for the communities that are part of the pilot Allegheny County, Pennsylvania River Towns project — that Jim led, residents of Sharpsburg suddenly saw an underused industrial area as a potential new gateway (see photo on right), while citizens in Aspinwall found that a soul-less alley was actually an ideal location for a landscaped pedestrian arcade (see photo at start of article).

Walking The Sites

Walkabouts have a variety of applications: from being a part of a public participation process to being an integral piece of a formal meeting or information session to being a site visit for a specific project.

Why are walkabouts so useful?

First, it is easier to comment on the conditions of a “subject property” if everyone is standing together looking at the same thing at the same time, rather than relying on memory and perceptions.

Second, a walkabout provides an opportunity for planning commissioners to visit properties together without violating Open Meeting requirements.

Third, walking around a property will help everyone see its context in the neighborhood, yielding more thoughtful and observant recommendations for land use decisions.

But perhaps the best thing that can happen is that the barriers between “us” and “them” soften when meetings take place in a neutral location, rather than in the official government building where the setting contributes to rigidity and intimidation. Even when the issue is a polarizing one, we have observed that people are much more willing to discuss their feelings about proposed changes in their community in a non-adversarial manner when the surroundings are more relaxed. That real dialog, rather than testimony, can quickly give rise to compromise and creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs.

When Visiting a Project Site

An important ingredient when doing a walkabout of a project site is to have the summary or whatever materials are part of the petition available when the planning commission visits the site. This allows each member to identify the particulars in their context. It is also helpful to have site plans, zoning maps, or similar documents for the same reason.

When doing a walkabout it’s a good idea to look around and see if there are any potential conflicts with traffic, drainage, sight lines, or utilities — or with adjoining or nearby land uses. A checklist of items to consider in the zoning classification or other ordinance provisions is very helpful.

One of the things we have used to great advantage is to have a photograph of the building and/or site to “mark-up” with observations and ideas so the petitioner can have a reference to what the commissioners are thinking.

Marked up photo of building facades
Mark the details of the Walkabout Meeting on a photograph of the subject property to document the meeting as well as to provide clear feedback to the applicant. Photo by Jim Segedy.

Consider Testing out Walkabouts

Before you institute a walkabout meeting in your local permit review process, we suggest that you use a couple of test cases to refine your system. After each test case, be sure to debrief to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, then make revisions and retest. Once you are happy with the meeting format and outcomes, you can revise your planning commission’s bylaws and procedures to include walkabout meetings.

By taking a walkabout approach to your meetings as an alternative to the traditional testify-in-official-chambers approach, you will gain broader public involvement, genuine public engagement, improved public trust, and fewer neighborhood conflicts with your proposed development/redevelopment.

So remember to get out your walking shoes … you’ll most often be well-rewarded.

photo of the SegedysJim Segedy, FAICP, worked for many years in Ball State University’s Community Based Planning program, providing assistance to more than one hundred communities and many plan commissions (as planning commissions are called in Indiana). He is currently a member of the Edgewood (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission and previously served on the Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission.

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, AICP, is the Associate Director for River Restoration for American Rivers’ Pittsburgh field office. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she spent over a decade as a circuit-riding planner for a regional planning organization serving the western fringe of Metropolitan Atlanta.